The Fifth Element: The Umami Burger Challenge
Behold the Umami Burger, the namesake creation of the snazzy new burger hut on La Brea, a sandwich that rises high enough to put a mere In-N-Out 4x4 to shrinking shame. The restaurant is dedicated to the concept of umami, the savory, meaty “fifth taste” that may be technically defined as the carboxylate anion of glutamic acid, which is to say the dash of soy sauce in your stir-fry or the catsup you like with your fries. Umami Burger’s Umami Burger is a pure expression of the umami universe, a frieze of six tastes stacked onto a very nice patty of custom-ground flap meat, the beefy cut that is the basis of the best carne asada. And like the Sunday double acrostic, the Umami Burger is a puzzle demanding to be solved. The grilled mushrooms are easy to find, along with the squishy roasted tomato, the melted onions and the crunchy, miniature frico made by griddling grated cheese. It’s then that things get difficult — is there hidden bok choy? Tamari? Yams? Soy beans? Tuna? The toasted Portuguese bun? Pure MSG?
Umami Burger is a nice place, a tiny, glassed-in café with a flagstone wall, rare woods and a painting of a kung fu Buddha, like Taliesin filtered through the aesthetic of Giant Robot. There’s no alcohol yet, but there are boutique sodas, La Mill espresso, and a DJ on weekends. Burgers — it’s all burgers — are dosed with every conceivable grade of umami, from the burger glazed with Stilton to the triple-pork burger with Manchego cheese; the scallop burger that is an occasional special; to a four-onion burger; and a not-so-truffly truffle burger prepared with truffle cheese and truffle salt. The pickle relish is spiked with the Japanese seaweed kombu; the onion rings are coated with a lacy, crunchy batter based on malt liquor, and the rather mealy French fries are stacked like Lincoln Logs.
Owner Adam Fleischman, who was involved with Bottle Rock and claims he has never even seen a bag of MSG, likes to refer puzzled customers to umamiinfo.com (its list of umami-rich foods could double as the menu for his restaurant), which opens up the alarming possibility that his signature burger may well be flavored with secret splashes of anchovy paste, seaweed or dried bonito flakes. You could always ask, but I suspect that would take away all the fun.
Umami Burger: 850 S. La Brea Ave., L.A. (323) 931-3000 or www.umamiburger.com. Mon.-Sat., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m.-9 p.m. Takeout. Lot parking. MC, V. Burgers, $8-$11.
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